Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale gives readers a look into the misogyny of medieval times and explores the role of women within the theme of sexuality. The ideas the Wife of Bath has about virginity, marriage, sex and power are ahead of their time and encourage equal power between men and women.
The Wife of Bath is skeptical towards the highly accepted idea that God has commanded virginity. Although women are advised to remain chaste, ‘conseiling’ is not the same as ‘comandement’ (73). The Wife of Bath believes that a life of chastity is a personal choice and works for some. She has yet not found proof in scripture that it is for everyone and remarks that should everyone become a virgin then we would disregard God’s intentions for marriage as well as His commandment to reproduce. She asks, “And certes, if ther were no seed ysowe, / Virginitee, thanne wherof sholde it growe?” (77-78). The Wife of Bath further suggests that her sexuality is a gift and therefore not sinful: “In wifhood wol I use myn instrument / As freely as my Makere hath it sent” (155-156). Her female organ is therefore not only used for urination and procreaction, but also for pleasure (137-140). Ironically, religion is used as an excuse for lustful behavior and used in opposition to an alleged religious society where sex was believed to be almost exclusively intended by God for procreation.
Throughout the narration, The Wife of Bath continues to use her own experience and understanding of scripture to challenge generally accepted views of marriage and the female’s role within it. Besides the fact that she has had five husbands, and is already waiting for her sixth one, her behavior is everything of that which a medieval wife’s should not be. She lies, cheats, manipulates her husbands and uses sex to control them. She encourages women to use the things men would consider a weakness in women to their advantage in order to gain control in their household:
Now herkneth hou I bar me properly:
Ye wise wives, that conne understonde,
Thus sholde ye speke and here him wrong on honed –
For half so boldely can ther no man
Swere and lie as a woman can” (230-234).
In this sense, male dominance is undermined and female empowerment through sexuality is encouraged in order to balance the power between the genders within marriage.
The tension between power and sex is further emphasized in The Wife of Bath’s tale which centers on a knight in King Arthur’s court who rapes a beautiful maiden. By taking away the woman’s maidenhead he exercises power and dominance over her. Instead of having the knight beheaded for his deed according to the law, King Arthur gives his queen the authority to judge as she considers just. Thereby, a man’s fate lies in the hands of a woman. The queen claims the knight’s life may be spared if he can tell her “What thing is it that wommen most desiren” (911). The knight goes on a long journey to ask all the women he meets what it is the women most desire. He finally learns from an ugly old woman that the answer to the question is power. However, the answer comes with a cost. The old woman says that the next thing she requires of him, he shall do it, if it lies in his power (1016-1017). Her wish turns out to be his hand in marriage, which might be considered his real punishment and submission to woman. In the end of the story, the old woman allows the knight to decide whether she remains ugly and old, but a true and humble wife or young and fair and with a chance that she may cuckold him. Only when the knight decides to yield his power and give the woman the sovereignty to choose for herself what is best, does he get what he desires; a beautiful and true wife.
Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” This notion has truly been emphasized in Chaucer’s unconventional portrayal of women in The Wife of BathPrologue and Tale. By challenging medieval men’s views of women and sexuality, Chaucer made an astounding attempt to assert the importance of gender equality in a patriarchal world.
// Royal Redhead